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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 7: Classical Greek Tragedy, Part 2

IV. Sophocles (ca. 495-406 BCE)

"Sophocles wrote about killing your kids and having sex with your mom and gods descending at the last second to save the day. He knew how to pull off a decent opening weekend." Joel Stein ("Spider-Man Rules"), Time 5/20/2002

A. Sophocles the Man

Sophocles' life encompassed almost the entirety of the fifth century BCE. Born ca. 495 BCE into a wealthy Athenian family, the young Sophocles was chosen because of his beauty to lead the singing and dancing at the ceremony held in celebration of the Persians' defeat in the Second Persian War. The same good fortune followed him into adulthood where, if classical Athens ever had one, he was the perennial "golden boy." For instance, as a young playwright, he defeated the veteran Aeschylus in dramatic competition—the evidence for this is found both on the Parian Marble and in a later histories—and from there he went on to win an unprecedented number of playwriting victories at the City Dionysia, all this in spite of suffering from microphonia—that is, having a weak voice—which forced him at an early age to retire from acting in his own plays. (note)

Sophocles (click to see larger image)Later in life, Sophocles also served his city as soldier and statesman, appointed as General (strategos) at least twice and Imperial Treasurer of Athens in 443 BCE. In addition to that, he played an important role in religion. As priest of Asclepius (the god of health), he received this deity's holy snake when it was first brought to Athens and had no temple as yet to house it. Because his counsel was widely respected, the aged Sophocles was one of the probouloi ("counselors"; singular proboulos) chosen to advise the Athenians after their navy was destroyed in Sicily in 413 BCE. Artist, accountant, priest and pretty boy, he was everything to everyone.

He died in 406 BCE at an extremely advanced age, having managed to remain active in theatre right up to the end. Following his death, the Athenians awarded Sophocles the highest honor a mortal could receive: he was dubbed a hero and given the name Dexion ("The Receiver") for having taken in Asclepius' sacred serpent. Living then from the triumph of the Persian Wars through almost the entirety of the fifth century BCE, Sophocles' timely death spared him the horrors of witnessing the final humiliation of Athens at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War which ended the Classical Age. Truly a blessed and remarkable man, he was the paragon of his times, having served in his day as the ancient Athenian equivalent of Shakespeare, Picasso, Lincoln, and Miss America.

B. Sophocles the Playwright

Yet, for all we know about Sophocles the man, there is remarkably little information on Sophocles the playwright. For instance, the treatise he wrote about theatre called On the Chorus is now lost. Aristotle, furthermore, tells us pitifully little about Sophocles' drama—as opposed to the dramatist's life—in spite of the fact that Aristotle surely had access to much more information about classical tragedy than we do.

From other sources of varying reliability, we can add perhaps a fact or two. The Greek historian Plutarch, for instance, claims Sophocles went through three phases in his career: first, a "bombastic" period—epic-like? declamatory? Aeschylean?—followed by a "sharp and artificial" period—reduced? overly clipped? anti-Aeschylean?—and finally a period in which Sophocles' style was "best suited to expressing character"—realistic? naturalistic? Menandrean?—none of which is particularly informative or says much about Sophocles' stagecraft. (note) Nor do the extant plays help much either, since all appear to come from the last phase, the one "best suited to expressing character," making it impossible for us to see for ourselves what really constituted these shifts in style. In the end, our best guide to assessing Sophocles as a playwright is his surviving work itself, a mere seven plays from his enormous output of drama, the meager leftovers of a once bountiful feast.

There is, however, one clear difference immediately visible in Sophocles' work which sets it apart from Aeschylus'. Sophocles is the first tragedian known to have written what modern scholars have termed unconnected trilogies, that is, sets of three tragedies whose plots do not revolve around a single family's saga or some sort of lore drawn from the same arc in the cycle of Greek myth. What links the unconnected trilogies is unclear today because so few of Sophocles' plays have survived and none from the same trilogy, which leaves us to guess the nature of how plays in unconnected trilogies created an integrated theatrical experience for the original audience. To judge from play titles and fragments alone, it seems safe to infer, however, that the tragedies housed in the trilogies of Sophocles were at best connected only thematically to one another.

But there is a larger issue at stake here. Because Sophocles is the first tragedian whose trilogies are known to have been unconnected—from which it is often and, no doubt, rightly assumed that he was also first to do so—he set an important precedent followed by the majority of tragedians who followed him and left their trilogies unconnected too. If so, he was truly a trendsetter, in that this innovation gave the playwrights who followed in his wake the license to cover much more mythological turf than if all trilogies had to consist of stories directly related by plot. In other words, unconnected trilogies opened the door to the staging of a much wider range of mythic narrative, in particular, parts of the epic cycle that easily supported one drama but not necessarily three. Thus, if Sophocles was the one who spearheaded this development, his descendants owed him a great debt.

We are told also that he made changes in the nature of the chorus, whose number he set at fifteen, though it is not immediately evident whether this represents an increase or decrease from the usual number in Aeschylus' day. It is also possible there was no fixed number prior to Sophocles and so his innovation may only be that he regularized the size of choruses. In other regards, however, he seems to have downplayed the chorus over time—choruses in the works of Sophocles have significantly fewer lines than their Aeschylean counterparts—though the impression of a diminished role for the chorus may stem from the general tendency of classical drama through the fifth century to shift focus away from choral song and toward the interaction of the individual actors who portrayed speaking characters.

This is not to impugn the centrality and beauty of the choral odes in Sophocles' drama which make it impossible to believe he actively disliked using choruses in performance—not only did he write a treatise entitled On the Chorus, but his skill in composing choral odes argues against any such presumption—more likely Sophocles simply modulated the role of the chorus in drama from active participant in the play to ode-singing onlookers, playing up the more reflective and philosophical aspect of their dramatic potential by enhancing the esthetic quality of the lyrics they sang. This would be a natural development for him as the first playwright on record who sat in the audience and watched the performance of a play he had written. All in all, it is better to see his modulation in the nature of the chorus' role in Greek theatre as a matter of "modernization" and not as some sort of disparagement or diminution of its role on stage.

C. Character in Sophocles

Even with so few tragedies on which to base judgment, there is yet another pattern discernable in Sophocles' drama, something seen nowhere better than in his acclaimed masterpiece Oedipus the King. To comprehend this pattern, however, requires an understanding of Greek myth in general and dramatic myth in particular, principally that both are much more fluid than commonly thought. The popular notion today that the ancient audience came to the theatre knowing the stories of the myths they were about to witness on stage is a half-truth, at best. To judge from the widely variant versions of the tales enacted in tragedy, it is clear Greek playwrights had quite a bit of latitude in their treatment of mythological stories and characters, a tendency fostered, no doubt, by the existence of rival variants of myth within traditional Greek narrative itself.

For instance, in one version of the Trojan War myth Helen is abducted against her will by Paris of Troy and forced to become "Helen of Troy." In another, she runs off with him voluntarily, dazzled by his good looks and his family's wealth. Depending on the particular needs of his play, an ancient dramatist could pull from either tradition, or sometimes both at the same time, as Euripides did in The Trojan Women where Helen and Hecuba argue over who is the real "Helen": abductee or adulteress? All in all, the classical Greek audience entered the Theatre of Dionysus knowing the general parameters of the myths to be performed—Helen clearly had to go to Troy (or at least everyone thought she did), though how and why was up to the individual playwright—but the viewers were never sure what version of the myth they would see in any particular drama.

At the same time, Greek myth—and its stepchild, Greek drama—was not without limitations, since certain things had come to be expected of certain characters. As a foreign witch, for instance, Medea must be willing to commit murder to get her way, or as the Roman poet Horace said:

If, for instance, you write of that time-honored Achilles—
A man not slow to act, who's angry, stubborn and bitter—
Let him say laws weren't made for him, settle quarrels with force.
Let Medea go wild, be uncontrollable. Let Ino be tearful,
Ixion treacherous, Io dazed, and downcast Orestes.

To the ancients, a timid or complacent Medea was inconceivable, as was a mild-mannered Clytemnestra. Though she might feel guilty after killing her husband, Clytemnestra still had to find in herself the will to commit unspeakable acts.

Greek vase depicting a production of the Oedipus myth (click to see larger image)Similarly, on the day the Athenian audience approached the Theatre of Dionysus to see Sophocles' Oedipus the King for the first time, there was an expectation they would confront a power-hungry, headstrong king who was willing to go to extreme lengths to keep his throne. According to the traditional story—no less a luminary than Aeschylus had staged this myth a generation earlier—Oedipus discovers the terrible truth of his fate, that he killed his father and married his mother, at some point around his appearance in Thebes. According to some versions of the tale, including Aeschylus' perhaps, the wicked man then decided to hide the awful fact and live and sleep with his wife and mother Jocasta. Indeed, the tradition suggests this mythic villain was so eager to remain king that he committed incest with his own mother, knowing full well who she was! However, when Jocasta found out what had happened, she killed herself. The ensuing investigation of her suicide revealed the awful truth in its dire entirety, and Oedipus suffered the consequences of his lust for power. (Click here to see a fuller explication of the evolution of the Oedipus myth and an exegesis of Sophocles' play)

Sophocles, however, took the story in a very different direction. While still arrogant and driven, he created an Oedipus who is ignorant of the truth until very late in his reign. Only then is the full story made known, whereupon he blinds himself and goes into exile. Instead of the traditional villain who tries to hide his shame and hang onto the throne of Thebes, Sophocles' Oedipus stands innocent of any intentional wrongdoing, at least on the surface. And when he is at long last shown to be the "most wretched of men," only then does he concede power and punish himself with blinding and exile, even though it is not exactly clear what wrong he has actually committed. In changing the timing of Oedipus' discovery of the truth, Sophocles has made him a sympathetic character, much more so than he was in Greek myth prior to this.

The same is true of other Sophoclean characters. For instance, according to traditional Greek myth, Deianeira, Hercules' wife, kills the great hero when he tries to bring home another woman. In Sophocles' Women of Trachis, Deianeira does just that but only out of ignorance, believing that the elixir she was giving Hercules was a love potion that would win back his affections. Instead, of course, it kills him. And like Oedipus, when she realizes what she has done, she punishes herself, in this case with suicide, out of grief and to save her good name.

Likewise, Phaedra in Sophocles' play of the same name—a drama now lost, but the general plot can be reconstructed from its fragments—is a lustful Cretan princess who usually emerges in Greek myth as an unsympathetic seductress, but Sophocles appears to have treated her character with unusual sensitivity and compassion. According to standard Greek myth, Phaedra fell in love with her own stepson, the handsome hunter Hippolytus. In some versions of the story, she makes advances on him and, when he rejects her, she angrily accuses him of rape to his father Theseus.

In Sophocles' Phaedra, however, the title character becomes entangled in a web of misunderstanding that circumvents her traditional lechery and guilt. Believing her husband dead, she proposes a political, not sexual alliance with Hippolytus in order to protect her children's claim to the throne of Athens. It is not Phaedra in this case but Hippolytus who is the excessive character and, interpreting her proposition as sexual, chastises her without good cause. When Theseus suddenly shows up alive, Sophocles' Phaedra panics and, like Deianeira, overreacts by accusing Hippolytus of rape. The young man dies horribly and unfairly at his father's command, and at the end of the play Phaedra kills herself in remorse, a far more pitiful—and interesting!—death than the one normally accorded this lascivious, foreign strumpet.

In some Sophoclean dramas, the converse is true. Sophocles is also known to darken typically favorable characters. Electra, for instance, traditionally assumes the part of the faithful daughter who waits passively—as a good Greek woman, it is not her role to participate in public life—and allows her brother Orestes to claim justice by slaying their unrighteous mother Clytemnestra, or so Aeschylus portrayed her in The Libation-Bearers (458 BCE).

Sophocles, on the other hand, has used the same story to create a very different Electra. In his play named after her, she is a bitter and despondent woman, obsessed with her father and avenging his murder. Refusing to change her clothes and clean herself, she rails at any who approaches her about Agamemnon's unrequited death. When her brother Orestes at last returns, she hounds him, insisting that he kill their mother and, when he finally does it, stands outside listening and abusing Clytemnestra as she cries out for help and pity. Though to many ancients Electra's cause is clearly just, the way she acts in Sophocles' Electra reveals the narcissistic monster lurking inside her, a beast who just happens to have right on its side. If it didn't, it would be so much easier—and infinitely more comfortable for the viewer—to condemn Electra for the human Fury she is, but Sophocles ' play doesn't afford such a freedom.

Perhaps clearest of all, the title character of Sophocles' Antigone stands as another such self-righteous monster. In a story well known today, Antigone challenges authority and buries her brother against the king's edict. Facing the death penalty, she hurtles forward, fueled by her obstinate sense of justice, and in the process propels herself into disaster. Moreover, in carrying her sense of rectitude so far, she takes down innocent people, among them, her fiancé and his mother. The play ends in a tidal wave of suicides and despair.

All in all, when we survey the treatment of character in Sophoclean drama, a pattern emerges. More than once, the playwright undercuts the classical audience's expectation of the way a well-known hero or villain behaves or should behave in myth. This clearly seems to be an attempt to realign—or simply complicate—the viewers' traditional sympathies. Even in what little remains of his drama, Sophocles does this often enough that it is tempting to suppose the inversion of standard character type was a recurring theme in his work, perhaps a hallmark of his drama in the Classical Age.

D. Sophocles and Language

Overall, Sophocles was—and if more people could read his original works, he would undoubtedly still be—best appreciated and remembered for his exquisite command of the Greek language, something blunted but still visible in translation. Yet the power of his drama derives not from high-sounding, intricate poetic expressions, as Aeschylus' "drunken" verses do, but from the cogent simplicity of phrases that often carry multiple meaning and redound with irony. To wit, Sophoclean choral odes are among some of the finest poetry ever written in any tongue and, even without the music composed to accompany them, they echo through the ages, shimmering with the elegance and beauty of the ideas that stream from them. Indeed, readers across the ages have valued Sophocles' plays for their literary virtues as much as theatre audiences have admired their dramatic force. That readability is, no doubt, what caught Aristotle's eye who seems to have preferred him to Euripides, in spite of the fact that the latter was clearly more marketable on stage during the Post-Classical Age.

At times, what makes Sophocles' poetry so spectacular and compelling is hard to see from a translation, but it is worth looking into since it was so patently a part of his art in its day. Let's look at just one example of his word-magic. About midway through Sophocles' Oedipus, a messenger from Corinth enters with what he thinks is good news for the king, that Oedipus' purported father who lives in Corinth has died and so now Oedipus cannot be his father's murderer as the Delphic oracle has decreed. Gleefully, the messenger says to the chorus:

From you, O strangers, I would like to learn where (mathoim' hopou)
The house of the king is, Oedipus' [house] (Oidipou).
So call him, if you know where [it is] (katisth' opou).

The first and third lines end with phrases meaning "know where," employing two different Greek verbs for "know" (mathoim', katisth'). The end of the second line is the name Oedipus in a form equivalent to the English possessive, Oidipou ("Oedipus' [house]"). That form of the name happens to have an ending which is synonymous with the Greek word "where" (pou), the same word that ends the lines directly above and below it.

Seen this way, the name takes on new meaning, because the first half of Oedipus' name (Oidi-) closely resembles yet another Greek verb meaning "know," oida. That is, Sophocles is slyly proposing that Oedipus' name should be etymologized as "know-where," the compound of oida and pou. (note) The messenger's intentional misreading of Oedipus as "know-where" is then reinforced by the other words meaning essentially the same thing immediately above and below it, so that three lines in succession appear to end with a trio of variations on "know-where" in Greek.

In other words, at this moment in the play the Corinthian messenger puns(!) on Oedipus' name—the technical term for this practice is paronomasia—presumably out of joy because he believes he is bringing Oedipus good news. He is, of course, not. The report of the Corinthian king's death will precipitate the revelation of the greater truth that the King of Corinth is not Oedipus' father and he has, in fact, killed his real father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, and joy will change to horror as the king's actual biography unfolds. So, the messenger's attempt at humor has dark undertones.

All in all, Sophocles' paronomastic word choice here conveys far more than a simple pun. By stressing "know-where" Sophocles reminds the audience who, in fact, do "know where" Oedipus is living, that Oedipus himself does not "know where" he lives or reigns or sleeps. Typical of Sophocles' style, even a light-hearted pun becomes etched in horror and sorrow. (note)

Such intricate use of language demands an audience whose tastes incline toward wordplay and verbal delicacies, a fact almost certainly true of the Athenian audience in the Classical Age, but apparently not of their immediate descendants in the fourth century. There is less evidence than one might expect for the production of Sophocles' plays on stage after his lifetime. In that regard, his colleague and rival Euripides whose tragedies appear to have been staged more often after the fifth century must be given the first prize. Perhaps Sophocles' exquisite use of classical Greek did not bear up well in later ages when the language had evolved and tastes in general shifted toward more sensationalistic and spectacular forms of entertainment.

In any case, it would be pointless to export such rich language to non-Greek-speaking audiences who could not ever have been expected to "know where" Sophocles was coming from. In such a circumstance it is remarkable that, absent the theatre and society into which it was born, Sophoclean drama survived at all. Much credit and tribute must go to the power behind his words after their innate beauty fell largely out of reach. Granted, it was a survival that relied more on the libraries and schoolrooms of antiquity than the stage, in a corpus tragically trimmed to a mere seven favorites. In Chapter 7.3, as promised above, we will see finally why.


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
Sophocles [SAW-fuh-kleez]
Probouloi [pro-BOO-loy]
Dexion [DECK-see-awn]
On the Chorus
Unconnected Trilogies
Oedipus (Oedipus the King)

Deianeira (Women of Trachis) [DAY-shun-NEAR-rah; TRAY-kiss]
Phaedra (Phaedra) [FIE-druh]
Hippolytus [hip-PALL-it-tuss]
Electra (Electra) [eh-LECT-trah]
Antigone (Antigone) [ant-TIG-gone-nee]
Greek Language
Paronomasia [PAIR-on-know-MAY-zha]



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